Farmers Are the Original Entrepreneurs
It was an unlikely spot to find the CEO of a Boston-based satellite analytics company. My colleague, Fernando and I were joined by more than 100 scouts as part of the FarmJournal 2017 Midwest Crop Tour1. The mission of the tour: to drive thousands of miles through the US corn belt, taking measurements to form an early view on the corn and soy harvest. Each year, for the past three decades, a volunteer army of farmers, journalists and commodities analysts have come to the corn belt from more than a dozen countries and dedicated a week of hard labor to sample a large set of corn and soy fields.
Why all the effort? In short, a lot depends on our harvest. The US crop for corn and soy is valued at $90 billion USD2, and it makes up more than a third of global production. Uncertainty in this production drives high volatility into the futures market that resonates across the US and world economy. Fluctuations impact the livelihoods of more than 3 million US farmers. Unexpected changes also affect input costs for many of the world's food and consumer processed goods companies. Essentially, much of our economy is built on top of this critical sector.
While corn and soybean fields were the setting for the weeklong tour, those of us who were non-farmers were given a chance to get to know some of the challenges facing our country's growers. Between the two of us, Fernando and I spent more than a hundred hours in truck cabs with a dozen farmers. Each evening, hundreds of farmers from surrounding communities came to hear the tour organizers at FarmJournal share what we were seeing.
From my very first conversation, shared at dawn over coffee at the start of a long day of sampling, it struck me how much those of us in early stage technology ventures have in common with modern farmers:
- We both wrestle with tremendous diversity of domains required for success. On farms that means mastery of industrial machinery, agronomy and life sciences, entrepreneurial finance, real estate and commodities marketing (and more). Farmers have to keep all of these balls in the air and make rational decisions at every turn.
- We are both exposed to higher levels of risk than most find tolerable. If something goes wrong, farmers wait a whole season to try something new. Farmers' ability to "pivot" is limited; they are all in on their crops of choice. Forces like weather, markets, and government policy exert unpredictable pressure on their business.
- We are both our own bosses. Most farming operations count as small to medium-sized businesses, which allows for a degree of independence that is not unlike what we see as early stage technology companies. For all of the benefits that come with this freedom, it can just as easily become freedom to fail.
Like any good entrepreneur, farmers are hungry for insights that can help them make better decisions.
It should come as no surprise that modern farming is well-aligned with the characteristics of entrepreneurship. The ‘pre-historic disruptors,’ after all, were those first enterprising proto-farmers who, more than 10,000 years ago, sparked the agricultural revolution. It was a crazy, audacious idea to domesticate plants and animals – to convert seeds, human labor, and an understanding of the seasons into a food-making machine. Everything else, from harnessing electricity to walking on the moon, has only been possible because our forbearers decided to take up farming.
Today, that farming enterprise is at a mind-boggling scale. More than 1.3 billion farmers drive $7 trillion USD in the global economy and they collectively transform more than 40 percent of the Earth’s land surface. Thanks to climate change and global demography, the stability of this world food system even 10-15 years out is far from certain. The game board for agriculture is shifting and it will take innovation from every corner of the economy to keep things on track. One of the main challenges to overcome is our inability to ‘see’ the global harvest. Gaps in our ability to monitor and model crops creates market volatility, undermines harvest potential, allocates risk unfairly, and leads to waste. We can do better.
Companies like TellusLabs are harnessing the power of satellite imagery, global weather surveillance and machine learning to help change the game when it comes to agricultural intelligence. This summer, via our Kernel product, we monitored 180 million acres of US corn and soy every single day. In the next 12 months, we will expand this coverage to farmland all around the globe.
At TellusLabs, we are committed to bridging the gap between these exotic new technologies and the problems faced by the farmers we met on our corn belt adventures this summer. Like any good entrepreneur, farmers are hungry for insights that can help them make better decisions. We are honored to join in that entrepreneurial tradition as we build products to deliver insights that matter.
1. (2017, August 23). Farm Journal Midwest Crop Tour - Markets. Retrieved October 23, 2017, from https://www.agweb.com/farm-journal-midwest-crop-tour-map/
2. Related Data & Statistics. (n.d.). Retrieved October 23, 2017, from https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/crops/soybeans-oil-crops/related-data-statistics/
David Potere co-founded Boston Consulting Group’s global data science practice. At TellusLabs, David is combining his love of satellite remote sensing with nearly a decade of practical experience addressing the geospatial and data-driven questions of the Fortune 500.